By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Paul Slavens Trio
Nominated for: Avant-garde/Experimental
Paul Slavens is nothing if not experimental. Though still mostly recognized for the wonder-why-it's-gone, jazz-cum-rock band Ten Hands, which at its best played away rock conventions while still fulfilling the necessary expectations, Slavens continues to pop up in the oddest places doing the oddest things. Aaargh, he's been a pirate hocking lottery tickets on ye olde television commercials; he's had tiny stints doing sketch comedy at KD Studios; he's been caught hiding out with Dave Abbruzzese's Green Romance Orchestra. And on many a Wednesday night, he's been known to turn Club Dada into a, well, Freak Show.
Dr. Paul Slavens' Freak Show, as whatever magic he's pulling from his bag of tricks is usually billed, could be damn near anything, but last year, as many times as not, it took the form of a trio, with Reggie Rueffer (ex-Spot) on violin and George Dimitri (Dallas Opera, Fort Worth Symphony) on bass. Swing, C&W, jazz, tango, polka, show tunes, polished traditionals, improvised incidentals--all get equal audience with Slavens, and all have equal chance of being either silly or sublime. If you are lucky, you might catch him taking a stab at one of his own personal "serious art music" piano pieces from his self-done album Absolute. Serious personal piano music? Yuck, isn't that John Tesh territory? Yeah, but talk about the avant-garde.
Nominated for: Country & Western
Slobberbone's lone nomination in the C&W category doesn't do them justice: If Barrel Chested wasn't among the best records of 1997 made by one of the best bands ever to hail from these parts, then Pimpadelic's got talent, and Deep Blue Something are still the next Beatles. These boys are the anonymous heroes of the No Depression lot, so authentic, they're almost parody--born in small-town Texas, raised underneath big skies, reared in small pool halls where they set up equipment behind the tables and the cases of beer. Slobberbone--still the worst name for one of the best bands around--might have come out in 1993 sounding like some rip-roaring Uncle Tupelo homage, but five years later, they're their own brand of special: Last year's epic Barrel Chested, released on the Austin indie Doolittle, catches and passes anything Whiskeytown or the Bottle Rockets released last year or forever. It's a remarkable follow-up to a catch-you-from-behind debut (1994's self-released Crow Pot Pie), a record about growing up on the access road to nowhere, watching the world and women pass you by as you pass out in a whiskey haze. The Old 97's may drive down big-city concrete-and-steel freeways; but Slobberbone are stuck in a flooded-out bar ditch somewhere between Denton and Oblivion.
This is a band that has tried for years to figure out what it is: Frontman Brent Best hires and fires fiddle players every other week; gigs are known to be recklessly perfect or incoherently sloppy, and the difference is subtle; and upon signing to Doolittle in 1995, the group re-recorded Crow Pot Pie and buffed its necessary rough edges clean off. The original was a beautiful, unpolished gem that sounded like a screen door banging in a tornado; Best howled about whiskey-glass eyes and drinking till his sweat reeked of Jack Daniel's, the guitars blazing like an East Texas sunrise in August. (It still ranks among the best albums released this decade, which, you know, makes it worth seeking out.) The songs remained the same on the redo, but the energy was dissipated; the new Crow Pot Pie sounded as though it were recorded in a bank lobby.
Barrel Chested delivers the promise, and threat, of the band's original vision: It kicks off with a sonic boom, the sound of git-ars (as the affable Best pronounces it, without affectation) and barbecue and dirt choked down with some bargain black-label. But Best also knows that drink comes with a price: "Drunk Little Fists" is as poignant and chilling a song as you will ever hear about domestic violence, Susan Voelz's violin in the background sounding like a heart breaking. Then he follows it with "Get Gone Again," which begins with the words, "I'm so sick of writing songs about screwing up." It's evidence of Best's maturation as a singer and songwriter, a very grown-up move for a very young man only two albums into a career that ought to last a lifetime.
Nominated for: Rock, Metal
Yup, no question about it: Slow Roosevelt rocks. Like Helmet, like Metallica, like Pantera...like everything the metal genre has come to represent ever since it merged with hardcore, or perhaps it was the other way around. Yup, it kicks you right in the tush. It's all about noise and riffs, all release and no tension, catharsis without a moment of subtlety. From beginning to end, Slow Roosevelt's albums--including the just-released Throwawayyourstereo (released on Aden Holt's One Ton label, home to Holt's sound-alike and think-alike Caulk)--are loaded with rage and defeat; this is what it sounds like when white guys get depressed/angry and want you to feel/touch their pain/hatred. Women suck, jobs suck, friends suck, people suck, yaddayaddayadda--theirs are the classic contents of punk-metal, every word a dagger and every breath a spit in the face of someone standing nearby.